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Wesleyan football has shot at historic region title

It's a safe bet the Wesleyan football players will know the exact location of their locker room for tonight's showdown with Athens Academy. Any other detail shouldn't be a problem either.

The Wolves' head coach, Franklin Pridgen, knows the place well.

He was an assistant there from 1992-96 under Athens Academy's current head coach, Michael Gunn, who also is one of Pridgen's good friends. Pridgen's wife Amy also went to the Athens private school and his father-in-law teaches there.

He still enjoys seeing Athens Academy do well. Just not tonight.

"I like to see them win every game except Wesleyan," Pridgen said.

Third-ranked Athens Academy has done just that this season. The Spartans bring a 7-0 record into tonight and are 3-0 in Region 8-A, just a half-game behind region leader Wesleyan.

The Wolves (6-2, 4-0 region) have a chance to make history tonight with the program's first region championship in what is one of the biggest football games in school history.

"That's something I'm trying to downplay because I want to keep our kids focused," Pridgen said. "It's my experience if we jump into the region championship game stuff we'll get caught up in it. I've hardly mentioned that this week. We're focusing on Athens Academy."

With good reason.

Athens Academy has won the last two 8-A championships, advancing to last year's Class A semifinals in the Georgia Dome. Will Daniel is a dual threat at quarterback, while tailback James Colquitt is very elusive.

The Spartans were expected to be playing in this game, competing for the region title. Wesleyan, which missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years in 2007, is the surprise.

"I think (Athens Academy's) doing what people thought they would do," Pridgen said. "Maybe we're doing a little more than people thought we would."

Aside from back-to-back narrow losses to Darlington and Holy Innocents' in Week 2 and Week 3, the Wolves have blown out every opponent on their schedule. Their average margin of victory in their six wins has been 30.7 points, with no team coming closer than 22 points.

Explosive back Kyle Karempelis (926 yards, 13 TDs) and quarterback Conor Welton (847 passing yards, 12 total TDs) have paced the offense, while Merritt Hall (51 tackles) and Bobby Fulton (47 tackles) have been the tackle leaders on defense.

The Wolves also have gotten strong play from its big linemen, like 265-pound Andrew Patrick, who played 92 snaps last week.

They still have plenty of players going both ways, which is commonplace in Class A. It's been a better fit so far than Wesleyan's previous region, 6-AA, where its AA opponents typically had superior depth and larger rosters.

"We wanted to see how good we could be if we were on level footing with schools our size," Pridgen said.

That's been the case this year. No more powerhouse Buford on the schedule or other larger schools.

Those challenges made the last two seasons difficult, but the rewards are coming this season.

"The kids never questioned themselves or the coaches (in 2006 and 2007), they were incredibly devoted," Pridgen said. "We were lining up against teams with twice as many kids as we did so they had more depth. When we got someone hurt, we were plugging in a freshman or sophomore who wasn't ready to play on varsity. ... But the kids never gave up.

"It's nice to see these kids have that success now and not play at a disadvantage."

SideBar: WESLEYAN AT ATHENS ACADEMY

Wesleyan Wolves (8-A)

Coach: Franklin Pridgen

Record: 6-2, 4-0 region

Last week: Beat Commerce 33-7

Athens Academy Spartans (8-A)

Coach: Michael Gunn

Record: 7-0, 3-0 region

Last week: Beat Athens Christian 38-6

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

Last meeting: Tied 21-21 in 2005

Directions to Athens Academy: I-85 north to Ga. Hwy. 316 east. Take ramp to U.S. 29 north and take exit 4 for U.S. 129 south/U.S. 441 south/Ga. Hwy. 15 south toward Madison/Watkinsville. Turn right and then left on Crystal Hills Drive.